Not many — including myself — doubted the Wolves would ever be in this position this season. I did, however, predict the Wolves to make a push for the 8th seed in my preseason post, but to actually have it in their grasp was still farfetched.
But Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and the rest of the Wolves have proved the naysayers wrong time and time again this season. Some thought the shortened season would be an advantage for the youthful Wolves, having such fresh legs and an extra gear to kick in when needed. But a shortened season in the Western Conference had proven to be just brutal, really. The West is more competitive from top-to-bottom than the East, so playing any team would prove to be a challenge.
The Wolves have taken the challenge head on so far this season, especially against the West’s elite. The Wolves are 12-2 this season against teams like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland. Those teams were preseason favorites to have good seasons and make the playoffs, if not contend for a championship — a repeat in Dallas’ case. Subtract the Clippers from that list and the Wolves posted a 2-57 record over the last four years against those other four squads. That’s astounding and really proves just how much this team has grown in just the past few months.
That growth is mostly due to Love’s consistent play through this season. Last night Love proved yet again — against a heavy counterpart in LaMarcus Aldridge — that he is the best power forward in the game. Love had 29 points and 16 rebounds in the 106-94 win over Portland. The last few games he’s kept the team in winning position with big late-game heroics, but last night it was his fiery start that helped the Wolves take control of the game. Love had 15 points, including three huge three-pointers, that helped the Wolves jump out to a 37-31 lead. Wes Johnson made his contributions by knocking down open jumpers — see, it’s not that hard, Wes — and posted 10 points himself (He finished with a season-high 19 on 8-11 shooting).
Once those two set the pace, everyone just seemed to settle into place. Derrick Williams came off the bench aggressively and hit a couple early buckets, including one of those phenomenal hang-in-the-air floaters off a spin move. JJ Barea took over the bulk of point guard responsibilities once Rubio hit foul trouble — and also hit nothing but the rim on his shots. And Luke Ridnour, the story of the game for me, hit his open shots, including big three-pointers that helped extend the lead in the fourth.
The Wolves are hitting a groove, sporting a three-game winning streak. Through that streak, the Wolves have taken on tough competition and scored 228 points in two games against the Blazers. And this is all without Rubio. Well, the Rubio that took the reigns earlier in the season. Rubio’s hit a definite rookie wall, averaging just 7.8 points per game this month compared to January, where Rubio posted 12 points a game as well as nine assists. Once Rubio can find himself in the flow of the offense and create better shots for himself, this team could skyrocket to success. After all, the Wolves are only three games out of third place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Right now, John Hollinger puts a 60.8% chance on the Wolves making the playoffs with a 0% chance of hitting the lottery. That’s remarkable to think of knowing where this team has come from. It’ll continue to be a long road — the Wolves embark on a seven game road trip on March 12 — but at least they have two feet moving in the right direction.
Next up comes the LA Lakers tomorrow night. It could very well be the statement stamp on the rest of the league to prove the Wolves are for real. Lakers are in a rut right now, having blown a huge lead in Washington — Yes, Washington — last night. It’s one of the biggest games of the year, so tune in. And if you’re going to the game, WEAR YOUR WHITE! Whiteout, baby.